A Story of Staying, of the Best Hosts

Posted on 19 November 2014

I am currently sitting in a hotel in Boise, Idaho. Hotels confuse me; they put me on edge. I feel kind of like an imposter. “We need to see your ID and your incidentals.” —My what?

And I feel isolated. I have an enormous room, bigger than my soon-to-be apartment, and I linger in just one corner. I know there are people around but everyone is in their own rooms, their own strange bubbles.

And all hotels look kind of the same. Last night I was in Laramie, Wyoming. The night before, Kansas City, Missouri. All entirely different cities, but I wouldn’t know from my lodgings.

This is a result of me rapidly moving—as in, actually moving, my car is packed up with my belongs—across the country in order to be in Seattle to begin work. But given my discomfort, it’s pretty apparent that, despite my travels, I am not used to hotels. Nor do I want to be, honestly, and here’s why.


I walked into the arrival hall of the basically empty Vilnius airport. One person was waiting, and they were waiting for me. It was Evelina, my warm and clever host and friend. How did I know this Eve, who lives in a country that I had never before visited? Well, lest you think I’m crazy, let me describe my time with her first.

Eve lives in an apartment with her two kids, Maja and Lukas, very, very close to Vilnius’s old town. If I wanted to see the city, I just had to wander out of her building. If I was tired, I could traipse my way back. Eve works as a translator from home. When she wasn’t working, she was chatting with me or showing me around. Prime lodgings and a personal guide—you can’t pay for this! Or, maybe you can, but I can’t. Nor would I want to with the Eves of the world around.

 

Lukas, Užupis

Lukas scrutinizing the constitution of Užupis.

Maja, Literature Street

Maja on Literature Street.

 

But it wasn’t the convenience of staying with Eve that made it wonderful—it was the connection. It was walking around Old Town with her and Lukas and Maja. It was Eve telling me about Lithuania while Maja and Lukas scrambled around, grabbing our hands for balance as they tiptoed along walls. It was Eve bringing me and the kids to a shop that sold truly the tastiest cakes. It was Eve patiently responding to all of my questions as we walked up to the three crosses above the city, despite the exertion caused by the steep ascent. It was Eve then bringing me for drinks after the hike, just sitting and chatting about a ton of stuff on the pub’s patio. It was evenings in her home, playing music for each other. It was Eve bringing me to a film screening by the Lithuanian Gay League—highly fascinating and something I would not have known about on my own—and translating the Q&A for me afterwards, like a true pro. It was us dancing at the after party. It was us stumbling across the Baltic Chain anniversary concert around midnight, and then walking back home with ringing ears, and even after we got home, Eve kindly showing my curious self additional information online. It is me wanting to go back, back, back.

Vilnius is awesome. Lithuania is awesome. I loved the city and country for themselves, truly, because they’re beautiful—but unless you’re in the wilderness, places are shaped by their people. Vilnius is a charming city by its looks, but even more so by the character it has been endowed by its population. I want to see Vilnius again, but just as much, I want to hang out with Eve.

 

Eve, Lukas, Cake

Lukas showing Eve something in the presence of the best cakes.

 

So, how do I know Eve? Readers know that I have utilized Couchsurfing to tremendous results, but it is far from the only, or best, avenue to find hosts and hopefully make friends. Eve and I were Twitter friends, thanks to our mutual admiration for the musician Patrick Wolf. When I made plans to come through Lithuania, she invited me to stay with her. And that’s that. Well, except it wasn’t really, because Eve put me in touch with my lovely host in Riga too. But that is another wonderful story.

Upon the telling, people say, “Leah! These crazy things can only happen to you!” But I don’t think so, see. The key is to not think staying with not-really-randos from the internet is crazy. The key is to follow connections where they lead. The key is to not feel constrained by “normal.”

 

Eve and I

Eve and I, a selfie.


Looking around, my hotel seems ever so sterile and bland and lonely. Alas, I have no time to hang out with an Eve. But next time.

The Future Is Here. The Past Will Come.

Posted on 13 November 2014

Yes, I’ve been somewhat silent, but life has been spinning by rapidly. The past two weeks, I was in a heretofore unexplored part of the country, to me. And during my time there, I found out I got a job and therefore will be moving to this city:

Seattle from the Ferry

I didn’t just stay in the city, however, during my trip. I fulfilled one of my goals for the year and went camping. Good choice, because I saw beautiful things such as this:

Hurricane Ridge Sunset

This and much more, all within a few hours’ drive from my new home.

The next few days will be spent packing and then I will embark on a four-day drive across the United States. I’m simultaneously excited–I’ll see many states I’ve never seen–and scared–I dislike driving.

So yes, I have been and will be very busy, what with moving, a new home, and a new job. But never fear, the radio silence won’t last too long and I will continue with the scheduled programming about my recent travels in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Stay tuned for those adventures and future ones too.

And if you haven’t guessed yet, I’m moving to Seattle.

Revelry and a Robbery: Finnish Music Festivals

Posted on 11 November 2014

Friends at Flow Festival

 

Summers in Finland are magical and bright. The northern sun, barely setting, electrifies the air. Everyone feels this and revels in it, spending time in summer cottages, eating ice cream outside, and enjoying the variety of music festivals that the country has to offer. I’ll admit, I’m obsessed with Finland and can’t keep away—I’ve been seven times. I first went to meet friends, and the country has gripped me ever since. I’ve been back to visit them, and even managed to stay an entire summer, studying at Helsinki Summer University. I’ve planned the timing of other trips to and within Finland around music festivals.

I’ve been lucky to attend a number of different Finnish music festivals—Provinssirock, Ruisrock, Qstock, and Flow Festival. I went to three festivals the summer I lived in Finland alone. These weekends have included some of my greatest travel memories, as well as some of my worst. Overall, the effort and expense involved in attending these music festivals is entirely worth it if you plan your trip well.

Read More…

Baltic Chain, Remembered, or History Lingers

Posted on 28 October 2014

People with flags kept passing by us. Not just Lithuanian flags, which would be slightly more expected given that I was in Vilnius, but also Estonian and Latvian flags. Then it dawned: it was August 23, 2014, the 25th anniversary of Baltic Chain. Evelina and I walked to Cathedral Square and were surrounded by people mulling about with flags in hand and television crews zipping around. A stage had been set up for events later in the day.

On August 23, 1989, approximately two million people across the three Baltic states joined hands, forming a chain from Vilnius, through Riga, to Tallinn, a distance of over 400 miles (about 675 kilometers). This was a peaceful protest against Soviet rule of the Baltics and was strategically held exactly 50 years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed between the Soviet Union and Germany, effectively leading to the Soviet occupation of these three countries. Seven months after Baltic Chain, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence.

 

Gediminas’ Tower, Vilnius

Gediminas’ Tower.

Baltic Chain Anniversary Celebrations, Vilnius

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Baltic Chain on Cathedral Square.

 

I had been really curious to sense the political atmosphere in the Baltic countries, especially given that I was traveling from Russia and conflict in Ukraine was ongoing. I didn’t have to look too hard to see how many Lithuanians felt—that is, angry and wary. Eve told me it was wiser to speak English to people first and then switch to Russian if English didn’t work. Not that people would be mean (in fact, I saw people very kindly helping Russian tourists), but they might be more at ease with me if they realized I was, in fact, not Russian (though I’m pretty sure my Russian alone would give that away). To add to anti-Russia sentiment, on August 22, it was announced that a Lithuanian diplomat had been kidnapped and killed by separatist rebels in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk. I noticed that flags around town began to wear black ribbons on their posts.

Wandering around Cathedral Square were mainly older and middle-aged people, though not exclusively. These people are old enough to remember, and perhaps even participated in, Baltic Chain. The mood enveloping the square was quite jovial. They had run out of flags to give away, but a nice woman gave me a Baltic Chain anniversary sticker instead. After taking in the pleasant scene, Eve and I decided to walk elsewhere for a bit. Even just strolling the streets, however, demonstrated the general political sentiment. I came across multiple instances of declarations declaring Putin huilo, a cursing expression about Putin that has become popular. The past or present political situations don’t cast a gloomy shroud—for I found all three Baltic countries to be the opposite—but there is a certain glint, a need to demonstrate one’s autonomy.

The fact is, many countries on the western border with Russia are uneasy. I saw this and conversed about it in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Even the larger (thought certainly not large) Finland is uncomfortable, especially given recent Russian incursions into its airspace. And of course, the United States’, my native and home country, relations with Russia are increasingly deteriorating. Prior to visiting Russia, I was bombarded with well-meaning concerns from family and friends. I was very isolated during my incredible time volunteering in Siberia with Great Baikal Trail, but I experienced absolutely no hostility even when I emerged from the forest and was in Irkutsk or Moscow. However, I did receive my first ever warning from the U.S. State Department, alerting Americans about an upcoming demonstration in Moscow in support of Novorossiya (a separated East Ukraine), where there would likely be ample anti-American sentiment. In the Baltic countries, it all flipped.

 

Putin Huilo Graffiti, Vilnius
Anti-Putin Stickers, Vilnius

The sticker reads “Putin huilo la la la…”

 

Eve and I left an afternoon film screening and ran into another Baltic Chain event in the drizzling rain. People paraded by carrying an enormous, very long flag that stretched out further than I could see as it was carried down the street. We watched it all file by, and then we went for dinner, me pestering Eve with questions all the while.

As fellow post-Soviet states, the Baltics feel different from Russia. Extremely so. And now, especially, during these political and humanitarian crises, people are making their feelings known and national pride is almost inextricably entwined with anti-Russia (as a political power) sentiments. There is also a solidarity that emerges, as it did during Baltic Chain. Lest anyone confuse things, the three Baltic countries are different from one another. They speak different languages (and Estonian is in fact in a separate language group from Latvian and Lithuanian) and have different cultures and histories, though much of their recent histories are somewhat shared. Yet, the significance of the Baltic Chain anniversary and the active celebration of all three countries during the celebrations in Vilnius, shows that these shared feelings breed some sense of unity.

That night, Eve and I went out to a party. The drizzle had stopped, but was replaced by a damp chill. Dancing cleared away any lingering bone cold, and once we were tired, we decided to venture to Cathedral Square again, for Eve had seen a friend’s photo of Gediminas’ Tower of the upper castle in Vilnius on the hill beside draped in Baltic flags. We did not expect that the celebration would be continuing so late, however, for by now it was after midnight. Music swelled from the square and a crowd had gathered around the stage, which was currently occupied by a Lithuanian rap group. Simultaneously amused and inspired, we stepped around candles and made our way into the crowd. The rap group finished and the announcer took the stage. In solidarity with Ukraine, they pronounced, the final performance would be by Ruslana, a Ukrainian Eurovision-winning musician and political activist. She belted out a Ukrainian folk song with the blue and yellow flag draped around her shoulders. And thus, Baltic Chain anniversary celebrations in Vilnius concluded on a note that recognized that, though the results the Baltic independence movements desired were achieved, history is not over. Eve and I gazed at the tower, wrapped around in the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian flags merged together, and then made our way home. The melody of the Baltic Chain song, whose words I did not know, remained in my head.

 

Baltic Chain Anniversary March, Vilnius

Marching with the very long flag.

Baltic Chain Anniversary Concert

The Baltic Chain anniversary concert.

 

The next morning I boarded a four-hour train to Klaipėda. A sixty-year old woman named Danute sat down next to me and we struck up conversation in Russian, our common language, for she didn’t speak English and I don’t know Lithuanian. As trees flicked by the window, she asked me about myself and told me about her niece living in California and her brother who she was visiting in Klaipėda. She asked me if I went to the Baltic Chain celebrations the night before and I told her that, yes, I had been to part. “I was there, those years ago,” she told me. In between offering me coffee, she described the day. Even people in villages far from the Chain stood outside as their way of taking part. Danute smiled, her excitement still present. She told me that planes flew overhead, and they dropped down flowers.

Lake Baikal, Wreathed and Majestic

Posted on 23 October 2014

There is a shock to your system that comes from seeing natural wonders. Maybe you know it. Your chest constricts in a good, excited way. You grin. You can’t tear your gaze away. It’s as if your eyes know that this is something extra special, and they need to lock on as long as they can, soak everything in before you’re gone again. And even when you do return, the feeling is the same. Some things are, happily, hard to get used to.

It was our “rest day,” though it turned out to be more adventurous than restful. No matter! After breakfast we gathered our day packs and began the two-hour hike to the electrichka train station. We were going to the shores of Lake Baikal and thus were in quite high spirits. Once we reached the station, many of us whipped out and turned on our phones to take advantage of having cell reception and to let others know that, after a week of no contact in the Siberian woods, we were alive and thriving. Once on the train, Anya peered over at me and stated, “we’re becoming people again, not champignony.” We had readily adopted the moniker champignony for ourselves—a play on the English word champion through the Russian word for mushrooms—and it fit. We were dirty, persistent little mushrooms leaving the forest for the modern world, even if this world was only indicated to us by the use of cell service and the presence of non-campers on the train.

But the wild is always there, once you realize, nor does it ever quite disappear. As we approached our destination, we were able to catch glimpses of Lake Baikal out of the leftside window of the train. Everyone turned their heads. It’s near impossible not to. Even though I had already visited the lake, I felt a thrilling rush.

 

Kultuk from Above Old Russian Car Lake Baikal Shore

 

The train stopped and we disembarked on a hill above the town of Kultuk, on the southwest corner of the lake. Immediately we were swallowed by a grand landscape. Us, on the hill. Wildflowers lining the path, leading the way down. The village, waiting at the bottom. And the lake, a glorious base for it all, with threadlike clouds drifting in the sky above, mountains peering through across the way. We excitedly rushed down the slope, our speeds varying by the amount of photos we couldn’t help but stop and take.

We made for the shores of the lake. Some of us started preparing our lunchtime snack, but others of us donned our swimming suits and joltingly eased ourselves into the lake’s frigid grasp. We squealed and splashed around, but after a few minutes our discomfort ceased and we excitedly reveled in the fact that we were, very actually, swimming in Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake containing some of the clearest water. And more than that, you can sense its majesty, its pull. It’s very rare that I’m so excited about swimming.

After drying and snacking, we set off to hike along the now disused Circum-Baikal Railway. The only train that runs these days is a cute tourist train. We clambered over the tracks on foot, taking uneven too-long or too-short strides to step from one tie to another. The railway rose until we were elevated just above the lake to our right and surrounded by the plethora of wildflowers. Don’t let anyone tell you that Siberia is just a cold place. It can be, but it is more. The yellow, purple, blue flowers shivered under the sun; the railway stretched out before and behind; the lake spread out below, elegant, clear, and a perfect hue of blue.

 

Clouds over Lake Baikal

 

 

Abandoned Railway Station, Lake Baikal Circum-Baikal Railway

 

 

We simply walked along the railway, passing the occasional house framed by birches and one abandoned train station. We passed through several tunnels beside the tracks—not for trains but instead to manage meltwater from the snow, which could produce landslides. We picked some flowers. We sat at a picnic table and had a snack and played a game before walking onward. Eventually we reached the village of Staraya Angosolka, some ten kilometers from Kultuk. There, we had a short break, spreading out below the small village church and on a dock protruding from the shore. Hopes for more snacks were dashed when we learned the village’s grocery store—and cultural museum—had, unfortunately, burned down about a year before. Left was a banya, a campsite, the church, and houses scattered around. To get to the electrichka stop, one closer than where we had disembarked, we had to hike some more: through a beautiful birch forest, up a tiresome hill, and there we were.

While we waited for the train with tired legs, Elizabeth pulled out her music player and, sharing earbuds, we sang along to the shuffle. I hadn’t listened to music for a week. It sounded even grander after its absence, so once we boarded the electrichka I pulled out my phone and listened to Beirut as we pulled further away from Lake Baikal.

 

Circum-Baikal Railway Panorama

 

It wasn’t until 11:30pm that we arrived at camp for dinner, our journey lengthened by the dark and by missing the first turn off to camp, oops. We were allowed some extra hours to sleep in the next morning before work, and we all gratefully wobbled into our sleeping bags after our full day of walking over 15 miles.

Just walking. Traipsing along amid the wildflowers, the path reaching out in front and behind. The big world around. The birches looking down. The wisps of clouds floating by. Just looking. The mystical lake, placid beside you, quickening the heart. It’s places like these that lock on and remind the world how wondrous it can be. Don’t pass them by; let them take hold.

 

Lake Baikal BridgeBirches by Lake BaikalDock on Lake Baikal

Boggy Roots Hold Tight

Posted on 18 October 2014

Mornings came early. We reluctantly emerged from our sleeping bags, quickly trying to replicate their warmth by pulling on jackets and hats. Then, unzipping the tent and brushing against the dew, we emerged into the chilly Siberian day, still a shadowy grey under the trees. Warm kasha, porridge, of some variety waited for us in a big bucket under the green kitchen area tarp, along with bread, cheese, jam, and meat slices for the non-vegetarians. I fumbled with the instant coffee and topped its bitterness off with an overly generous helping of sgushyenka, sweetened condensed milk, my favorite. My thermos kept this gloopy beverage a little too warm a little too long, and by the end I was gulping it as to not be late.

The bleariness surrounding breakfast time evaporated soon enough, and it was another day on the Great Baikal Trail.

Great Baikal Trail Flag Vityaz from Below

Sunscreen on (you can get sunburned in Siberia, you know), bug spray on (the mosquitos are enormous and tick-borne encephalitis isn’t something to scoff at), damp hiking shoes or boots on, bandana on, gloves in the pockets—ready. With varying levels of tardiness, we rushed to make a circle where we celebrated the “person of yesterday” with hugs. Then off we were already, tramping through the campground, around the cliff Vityaz, through the woods, and to the bog, where we were constructing a trail through the squishy muck and the beautiful, already turning golden in August birches.

Doesn’t sound fun? I’ll forgive you for thinking so based on this description so far. And I’ll concede that camping in the Siberian wilds for two weeks might not be everyone’s cup of tea, or in my case, coffee. But, I—often unreasonably squeamish and not a fan of dirt—I had the time of my life. There are a few places that reach into my chest and tug, and the area surrounding Lake Baikal has weaseled its way onto the list.

Masha Chopping Wood Tanya and Zhenya Carrying Wood

So, yes, we tugged up the wet top layer of the marshy ground, splattering ourselves with mud when our pickaxes caught and whipped up a chunk of wet grass. It took around five of us to finagle firmly rooted tree stumps out of the earth. We developed blisters on our thumbs from repetitive bark scraping while evilly eager ants attacked and enormous mosquitos buzzed around. Our boots filled with mud as we sank into the ground.

But we laughed and laughed, becoming exceedingly more silly by the day. We sneakily hunted for little gifts for our secret friends. We played “who am I?” in an amusing mix of Russian and English. The clever Yulia guessed “werewolf” after only two questions; we figured each other out quickly as our personalities bloomed and settled into their spots on the crowded bench. And we sang a lot, with varying levels of talent, but with lots of gusto and no embarrassment. We belted out the Beatles and the Sound of Music and Russian folk songs. So work wasn’t really as much work as going through the admittedly tough motions with a crew of jolly friends. And it was interspersed with tea and candy breaks, as you do.

 

Thanks, Masha, for the video!

 

After our morning three hours of work we plodded back to camp for lunch. And after lunch we changed into bathing suits and jumped in the frigid stream to temporarily rid ourselves of the mud splatters and for an actually needed cool down. Saner people than I limited themselves to one or two dips in before drying off in the sun.

We had an afternoon break, during which we could do productive things such as laundry or journaling, but more often than not I got wrapped up in equally productive games. Productive, I say, because I drew my friends closer and, yes, remembered my ere-faded Russian.

Before we could quite register the time passing by, it was time to work again. We would do another three hours before dinner at 7:30pm or so. Ravenous after, we would scarf down our soup and then queue up for the bucket shower or, better yet, banya. Three of us would enter the steamy room, sit and sweat, and then rinse with our buckets. Happily we had the option of stove heated water before the cold night descended, but I’m crazy and chose the cold water. Then, refreshed, we were ready for an evening of sitting around the fire and singing some more before trundling off to our tents around midnight.

GBT Campsite Tea by the Campfire

I curled up in my beloved sleeping bag and got not quite enough sleep (but no matter!) before the next busy and glorious day. There was no need for internet to while away the time. The two weeks flashed by. I felt like it was a long time because new friends felt like old ones quite rapidly; I felt like it was no time because I didn’t want it to end so quickly and it did. So, you see, these days camping and trail building in Siberia were anything but boring. And they were nothing but beautiful (okay, sans the huge mosquitos). I sit here listening to ДДТ, a staple band of our campfire songs, and look forward to whenever it is that I am able to go back and do another project with some of the best people there are.

I laughed when I told people I was off to camp in Siberia for two weeks. I still laugh because it sounds crazy. But the craziest things are often the most amazing. They root themselves in your chest and stick tight and are part of you, holding you up.

Volunteering Abroad: How to Make Sure You’re Actually Helping

Posted on 14 October 2014

Atop Vityaz

 

Volunteering abroad can be a wonderful experience –you get to travel and do some good for the world at the same time. Win/win, right? Unfortunately, not always.

I’ve learned this lesson through experience on three different continents; I have completed volunteer internships in Peru and Kenya and I just returned home from a project near Lake Baikal in Russia. All of these experiences taught me something, but some volunteer projects are more effective than others.

As an international volunteer, you may be doing less good than you think – or worse, even causing harm. International development is fraught with complexity that is still debated even among experts on some points. However, there are guidelines that you can follow when choosing a volunteer project in order to make sure that your efforts are well spent and that you’re giving as well as getting from the experience.

Read More…

An Adventure Words Barely Touch

Posted on 30 September 2014

An admission: I was reluctant to write about my time in Siberia. My words aren’t good enough to encompass the experience. I’m more accustomed to internal drama, to melancholy; I have those words. But this project in its shimmering, impossibly stress free gauze—it is beyond me.

An admission: It is slipping away. Though glittering flecks of it all stubbornly remain latched on to my behaviors, gradually I shed them off. I can’t help it. That’s life. Ordinary days take over again; I have things to do; I should focus on the now, anyway. But I still reach behind. Ah, there’s the melancholy.


It didn’t exactly look promising, but I already knew it would be just fine. The electrichka train doors slammed shut, with half of us still attempting to stumble down the steep stairs onto the gravel embankment of the stop. Shouts! They let us off into the drizzle, soon to be rain.

But I knew it would be just fine. See, on the electrichka, our very dear, ever positive, sweet, wonderful translator Anya immediately rounded us up for some games. Take as many pieces of toilet paper as you’ll use today! Haha, you now must say that many facts about yourself! As we went round introducing ourselves, I was mostly filled with a blooming curiosity. Even the obligatory drunk didn’t bother me. “Anya! Anya!” Slava wanted to play, too. After the games were done, he treated us to an operatic tune, a capella. Lauren, in Russia for the first time, sat by him, shaking with laughter. Welcome to rural Russia, where the friendly drunks serenade you. It’s not an anomaly. It’s an acceptable fact of life.

 

Another Russian Suitor for Lauren

Another Russian guy providing Lauren with entertainment.

 

The rain methodically pattered down. We soldiered through the muddy path, winding our way around large puddle after another. Despite the chill I began to sweat under my raincoat — why are they so stuffy? — and my legs tired from carrying the extra weight of my backpack. But already the songs began pressing themselves out of our mouths and I found myself joining in, belting out a Russian song I didn’t at all know. Molotsi, molotsi.

We crossed a bog, squelching abundantly. Later we would solve the problem of this muddy crossing by building a trail over it. And then, after clambering around a rock face, clumsy with our packs—there was our camp. We dumped our belongings in the two yurts on site, spreading things out to dry, lighting fires in the stoves. And now, for more games! Under a slightly leaky shelter, the roof beating a rhythm of raindrops, we learned shaman chants, tangled ourselves up, and played this is what I like about you/this is what I hate about you, oh but now you have to kiss/bite those parts, surprise! All of this tumbled by in an interesting Russian-English mishmash. And somehow, these bizarre activities, among adults no less, were entirely natural and fun.

 

GBT Dinner Inside

 

It was raining too hard to set up our tents, let alone our campfire, so it was inside eating for just the beginning. All eighteen of us— five Americans, the rest Russians — crammed into the small kitchen, around the smaller table. Already quite close, we chowed down on what would be staples: soup, macaroni, bread, (too much) candy. And, in the darkening room, sang some more.

I didn’t quite know if would be just fine that night, though, entering the yurt. Which leaked. Nine of us crammed in and the fire blazed. I lay on top of my new, already precious sleeping bag, and realized that even if I protected it from the ceiling drips, it would get my sweat all over it anyway. Well.

Early the next day the wonders really began. Anxious to be out of the sweltering yurt, I woke early and went out with Elizabeth who was on duty to prepare food for the day. I dressed for rain, for I could still hear water outside the yurt, but peering through the door, I realized my mistake. The only precipitation in the air was mist; what I heard was the roaring, lovely river we were situated by.

 

Yurt Door at the Campsite

 

This day, our project duties truly began. We were able to set up our tents, which I had longed for very much over the course of the muggy night. And we began work: first, gathering firewood and hauling it back to camp. Natasha, our tough and great leader, cleared the way with her beloved chainsaw, creating the beginnings of a path we would soon build. And we, trailing behind, clambered through the squishy moss, gathering as many branches as our arms could bear and, muddying our raincoats, hugged them to our chests as we tramped back to our blossoming camp.

It was certainly going to be just fine! After obyed, late lunch, we girls started off some more goofiness. What does a horse say in Russian? Iiiii go-go! I kid you not. My torso ached more from laughing than from lugging branches around. After awhile, we switched to learning potentially more productive things, making Russian-English drawings for the parts of trees and types of flora and fauna around.

And then for our hike, since I suppose we were easing into our working days—normally, we would work both morning and afternoon. But it was good to see the sites we were supporting with our trail building, namely, the shapely cliffs of the Olkhinskoye Plateau. I lagged behind the others, eagerly taking photos of birch trees. There’s something about northern forests — the moss, the pines, and of course the birches— not too imposing but elegant enough, that’s very comforting.

We reached one of the cliffs, Idol, and scrambled around, taking photos of each other, all together. Then we headed for another rocky outcrop, where we were able to stare down a cliff over the sea of greenery below. Siberia! Our sense of adventure was piqued, for when we turned around and walked back by Idol, a brave handful of us clambered up a rock face (I needed help getting down; it wasn’t the easiest) and faced Idol from a new, dizzying height. Again, the green stretched out under us. This vast earth. Siberia.

 

Baby Tree and Idol

 

Others collected mushrooms while I only collected blisters, unperturbed, it was certainly going to be just fine. That night we had mushroom soup. Our instigator of silly activities, Anya, had enlisted Rachele and I to perform some songs, and perform we did. For two weeks, I belted out tunes without a care. By the way, I’m not a great singer.

To top it off, we got to use the banya that evening. It wasn’t until midnight, under the overwhelmingly starry Siberian sky, that I zipped myself into my sleeping bag. This was only the first full day on project coming to a close. There was more mud and joy yet to sink into.


An admission: Volunteering with Great Baikal Trail was, honestly, probably one of the better things I’ve done. By the end of the second day I had written in my journal, I love this. The following sentences in my journal: There are so many good people and the nature is wonderful and I just feel pretty carefree and not anxious. Like whatever is fine, and I’m thinking about now, not the future.

An admission: Now, I am thinking about the future. I am thinking about going back.

Don’t Be Daunted: On Hitchhiking

Posted on 25 September 2014

It all started when the bus didn’t stop. All through the 90 minute ride, I stared out the window at the unfamiliar landscape, prepared to signal my desire to disembark when we turned off the highway. Proud of myself for recognizing the spot based solely on Google Maps research, I stood up. But the bus driver ignored me, even after I asked him to please stop, and drove on. Way on. By the next stop, I was too far from my destination to walk.

I was determined to visit Lahemaa National Park, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Tallinn. I particularly wanted to visit Viru Bog, which looked beautiful from the photos I had scoured through online. The problem is Lahemaa National Park isn’t the most straightforward place to visit for fiercely independent budget travelers like me. Renting a car was too expensive. Joining a tour meant thwarting my aspirations to wander alone in the woods. There are self-guided bike tours, which, while probably enjoyable, were also out of my price range. After consulting the internet and a host in another town, I decided to attempt taking the bus, which was supposed to stop near the trailhead and should come by in the afternoon for the trip back to Tallinn. Clearly, no such luck.

But here’s the catch: one thing my travels have taught me is not to fret. Something will work out. Walking back in the direction I had come, I stuck out my thumb.

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Path into Viru Bog

I’m A Stranger, Which Makes Me Free

Posted on 15 September 2014

Two overnight flights in a row: over the Atlantic, over Russia. Eagerness overrode any exhaustion—at first—but then it all began to drag into a tunnel of grey, vibrating time when Siberia Airlines’ idea of a veggie wrap was served in the form of a blob of mayonnaise garnished with cole slaw, tucked away inside of a tortilla. And that was in fact, the most edible vegetarian airplane food from then on.

But no matter, shaking away hunger and, more pressingly, thirst, cloaked in a sheer veneer of tiredness, which I at times had to swat away from in front of my face but mostly ignored, we landed at the small Irkutsk airport and walked into the arms of friends—at this point, my friend’s friends. I blundered with my heavy backpack, which was soon to be shouldered not by me but by the man among us, as they do, and began drowning in the foreign sounds and sights that enveloped us as we emerged into the sunny morning.

Tree by Lake Baikal

But, I suppose, drowning isn’t it. I’m submerged, not always able to function normally, really just drifting along on the current, but there’s no panic, no flailing, no “look at me! Help! Get me out of this water!” I simply watch and attempt to listen as my sluggish, poor sleep-deprived brain scrambles through the detritus of four years past to unearth the Russian that lays buried. I flinch every time I mutter también instead of тоже. I mostly watch the others and try to force myself to understand what I don’t, through sheer force of concentration, which helps sometimes, but still. And sometimes I don’t even try but look around instead.

Following, following. Dropping off my laptop at the Great Baikal Trail office—I won’t be needing that for two weeks. Dropping our bags off at the hostel. And quickly, quickly, off to Listvyanka to see Lake Baikal. I’m finally here, I need to see it, and the plans generously form around what is best for me, the new one in town. Following my friends to the market—finally, edible food! Mushroom pies! Ice cream! (in the cold places, they very much love their ice cream and I stand behind this sentiment.)—following them to the marshrutka, the minibus, that will take us to Listvyanka, an hour away. And we’re speeding down the road, my back to the driver, some sort of oil leaking over the floor, mushroom pie crumbling into my lap but mostly my eager, parched mouth.

Birch trees fly by as we crest hills and descend over and over. I’m in Asia, I tell myself. I’m in Siberia. The mystery is here. I’m somewhere, to me, that is wholly new. And I just float along: no discomfort, no worry, just watching it all fly by.

Boat on Lake Baikal

 

Lake Baikal. Even those who have seen it before can’t help but widely grin. We can barely make out the shadowy mountains across the water. If you squint hard enough, they materialize. If you listen hard enough, you understand. If you spend your energy trying, instead of fighting, the new and real, you’ll serenely coast along and absorb it all into your consciousness, your flesh. We wandered on the stony shores, through the fish market, gathering food—fish for them, berries for us all, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, like bitter grapes. We sat on the shore, smiling, eyes narrowed against the sun, my skin rapidly reddening, why yes, I got a tan in Siberia.

Fish Market, Listvyanka

Let’s ride in a boat! Dima says. It’ll be fun! He says. I expected something calm, a placid glide over the clear water, but no, this is Russia and everything jarringly collides, it’s idiosyncratic, because suddenly we are bouncing over waves, jerking back and forth on a speedboat as it figure eights, spray everywhere, and we’re screaming and laughing in the borderlands of glee and fright. The sun beats down, the air shimmers, the water shines even more. I’m in Siberia! I’m on Lake Baikal! I laugh and let the boat toss me around, head back, face open, everything pouring in, for Lake Baikal is all-encompassing, it carries its own feeling.

To Guide Boats, Lake Baikal

Another idiosyncrasy of mine: at this point, I don’t care if I don’t understand everything. I don’t get bothered when I don’t comprehend a language as it floats around me. I don’t care if I don’t know what I’m doing, just caught up in the glide of my hosts, or rather new friends. I, ever in need of control at home, shaking, clenching, nails scraping my palms, my thighs—I need it, see, it’s my home, my place—let this pressure slip off, like a heavy black cloak onto an entry hall floor and I hold up my arms, shrug my shoulders, and confidently step into a place that is not mine, never mine, and I am free.

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